The line between sports and politics is all but gone, and I'm all here for it
I'm sorry to inform you, but your favorite sports are changing. Or rather, your favorite athletes are aiming to change how sports influence your world.
Being “just a kid from Akron” myself, my fandom for LeBron James will never wane regardless of what team he is playing for, and I make no apologies for that. But what's remarkable, even to me, are the things someone who is heralded as basketball's best living player (let me add “active” because I'm not here for an MJ debate) is doing to leave a legacy larger than his on-court accomplishments.
With the July opening of the I Promise elementary school in Akron, LeBron did exactly what we expect from the politicians that we elect to office: He made people's lives better. (Among other things, the school offers career placement counseling for family members of students, as well as free college tuition to the University of Akron for all graduates.) And he did this all while working hard to maintain his status as the best player in the league.
Being attuned to social issues is nothing new for LeBron, who has never hesitated to make his feelings known about our current president, including a recent TV interview where he highlighted Trump's divisive rhetoric. Days after, on Twitter, Trump lashed out, questioning LeBron's intelligence. LeBron, for his part, didn't take the bait, letting the interview stand for itself. (When anchor Don Lemon asked LeBron what he would say to Trump if the two were seated across from one another, LeBron responded, “I would never sit across from him,” which remains the perfect brush-off.)
LeBron's rise as a social leader mirrors a larger trend of the line blurring between sports and politics.
Just last week, rapper Big Sean criticized Electronic Arts and the NFL for editing Colin Kaepernick's name out of a song that is being used for the Madden '19 video game. (EA recently said his name would be re-inserted in the next game update.) To many, the move read as further punishment for a player who launched the still-ongoing protests that have turned the pre-game national anthem into a cultural and political battlefield.
Furthermore, France won the World Cup with a roster featuring immigrant players, many of whom would be treated as pariahs absent the on-field heroics. During the MLB all-star game, racist and homophobic tweets attributed to professional baseball player Josh Hader surfaced, and, just days later, following an apology, he returned to the diamond to … a standing ovation? For what? For once-upon-a-time being a racist? And don't get me started on all the narratives tennis star Serena Williams has been forced to counter.
There are some people who want to put this genie back in the bottle and have athletes stick to sports. But if those days aren't already dead, the last rites are being read. After all, the act of watching sports is a type of wish fulfillment, right? Watching athletes do impossible and precise things with the human body is something at which we love to marvel. Watching them throw themselves in front of the discourse that genuinely affects people's lives should be no different.